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The Manager in Afghanistan


Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants more troops for Afghanistan. And of course he does: He's the general in charge of Afghanistan. Which is to say, he's a person in charge of something. Neil Sinhababu explains:

It's generally hard to know what to make of military commanders' requests for more resources. On one hand, they're very close to the situation at hand and thus have a very good knowledge of it. This fact gives them a great deal of credibility in public debate. On the other hand, they're managers, and managers always request more resources whether they need them or not.

This second fact isn't that well appreciated in media coverage of their requests, but it's something that anybody who works in a big organization is very familiar with. If you went to Sor-Hoon Tan, my department chair, and asked her if she'd like to have funds to hire two more philosophy professors, she'd say yes. As would the chair of just about every department in the country. Nobody ever says, "Well, we're making great use of what we have, and while we could do more work with more resources, these positions would really be put to better use in Sociology, so why don't you give this money to them." When something is your job, you focus on doing it, whether it's building the NUS philosophy department or rooting out the Taliban in Afghanistan. Whether the resources you're requesting could be put to better use elsewhere is far from your mind.

This isn't some knock on McChrystal. But it's a problem nevertheless. It's a problem because we're uncomfortable subjecting military demands to traditional economic analysis. Obama comes out with a plan to save money on missile defense, for instance, and can't actually say that aloud. Similarly, the conversation over McChrystal's request will take place entirely in terms of whether that money will help us "win" in Afghanistan, and not whether it's a good use of funds given the universe of things the government needs to spend money doing.

It's good for managers to advocate for their projects when they're checked by executives who are weighing different priorities. The problem is what happens when those checks effectively disappear, which tends to be the story on defense spending.

Photo credit: By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  September 21, 2009; 1:17 PM ET
Categories:  Afghanistan , Economic Policy  
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Next: The Three Compromises


If a plumber were tasked with solving the Afghan problem, don't we think the solution would involve pipes, solder, and porcelain?

Asking a General to solve a problem will always result in a Military solution. Which is why Civilians are supposed to be in charge of the military apparatus that represents the American people.

C'mon, Civilians, off your butts...

Posted by: JkR- | September 21, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Dated, but appropriate phrase:

"Heads should roll in the DoD for leaking this report to WaPo and NYT".

This is clearly an attempt (very likely to be successful) to preempt Obama's ability to make CiC and POTUS decisions.

If Obama had ANY 'intestinal fortitude' he'd reject the report as grossly inadequate and call for a new analysis - just to put the Generals (and DoD staff) into bunched undies syndrome.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | September 21, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

It is all getting eerily reminiscent of Vietnam. We can't "win" a war to prop up a corrupt government that the Afghans themselves don't think is worth fighting for. And to make it even worse, the Taliban was the last government, not some upstarts trying for power backed by a neighboring country.

The Taliban may have supported al Qaeda, but they don't seem to be hosting training camps now, and al Qaeda is being contained by drone and covert attacks (assassinations, let's be honest). This is a losing enterprise and the sooner we get straight about that the better. We need the resources here at home.

I really don't think Petraeus on a war platform in 2012 is a great threat to Obama's majority. Just say no.

Posted by: Mimikatz | September 21, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

McChrystal's report is shrill and seems designed to force Obama's hand. It's not the behavior I would want from my top general if I were President. Obama should go with his instincts and be very cautious.

Posted by: bmull | September 21, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

dear president obama

before you respond to general mcchrystal, please watch this youtube.

please do not put our country through another viet nam.

the polarization in this country today over health care, had its ideological lines drawn in that war. we still have not recovered.
if there is going to be nation-building, please let it be here in the united states.
our jails can hardly hold all of the people in this country who still dont have opportunities to an american dream. there is too much real suffering in this country, without embarking on a war that will destroy lives, increase suffering, cause even greater divisiveness in our country.
i think the greater dangers in this country now are within it, not across oceans.
please. americans are suffering.
please, no more news of roadside bombs killing troops on thanksgiving morning. no more requests for more soldiers and millions of dollars for a war in afghanistan.
no more people filling our streets with demonstrations of anger and frustration, that no-one is listening.
heal us first.
this country is in desperate need of help for our own people.
go for a walk through the streets of washington, dc one night.
let's try to win the wars here first.
please, no more suffering. we are not strong enough or united enough as a nation to endure another war at this time.
no more american blood shed in afghanistan.

Posted by: jkaren | September 21, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

and what is the timing of all of these terrorist plots??

three days before mcchrystal asks for more troops, a group of suspected terrorists are announced here.
this same thing kept happening in the bush administration.
we are about as "feared-out" as we can get with all of this stuff.
people wanting to blow us up, somebody in our best university doing reasearch, stuffed in a wall on her wedding, a general telling us we need more troops in afghanistan after what we went through in iraq.
no wonder half the country is on anti-depressants.

i think more americans are fearful about a trip to the emergency room without health care coverage, and losing a job right now.
the last thing we need is more news about young americans getting blown up, thousands of miles away from their families, in a cave, when we dont even know exactly what their mission is.
just my opinion, but i think this is just plain wrong.

Posted by: jkaren | September 21, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

there are no enemies...just sit down and talk it out...I don't understand why Obama would kill women and children trying to kill the non-enemy , at least that is what he said he would do, so I voted for him.

Posted by: doggit1 | September 21, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Let’s see, McChrystal's battlefield assessment says the US will likely fail in Afghanistan if his mission doesn't get more resources. Hmmm… how can you say no to that?

Would it be a breach of etiquette to ask the good general if nine years into the Afghanistan action, having apparently made little headway beyond meretricious effort at great cost in US troops and Afghani lives, if the “we can never leave” mission is not one of continuing to dig a deeper hole, with the only change an angle of trajectory or adjustment in digging tools.

Hopefully, raising such a question doesn’t label one an unpatriotic defeatist or a supporter or “the enemy,” whoever they may be at the moment (US missions this century seem to only increase the numbers of those who “hate us for our liberty and democracy”).

Luis de Agustin

Posted by: Luis_de_Agustin | September 21, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

When has the military not been howling for more money and troops? Major General Electric, anchor for Yet More Good News From Our Wars makes the case for the military.

Posted by: saintpeterii | September 21, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Every General wants more troops, more weapons, less control from the President & if they get all of this, if you look at American Military History, they just lose on a bigger scale. Obama should remind the dear General / Admiral of General MacArthur ... he asked for all of the above & got it, then he asked for Nukes & got fired. Our Military Leadership " Any one with the rank of Colonial & above" stinks. None of them have ever been involved in a war we won. They don't know how to win. They sacrifice the very brave Line Troops then start looking for excuses to cover their own fat butts.

Posted by: wasaUFO | September 21, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

The problem is, if we do not complete the mission in Afghanistan that will mean in the near future we will have them killing more Americans on our home soil. In my opinion we cannot afford to abandoned Afghanistan. It is just common logic the more guns that are fired at the bad guys, the more of them will die. Not giving General McCrystal more troops now will ultimately cause more Americans to die, and more will die if we don't finish it. We will have to go back years later and start all over again, like in Iraq after Bush #1 left it unfinished.

Posted by: donniewv | September 21, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

"...they're managers, and managers always request more resources whether they need them or not."

Generals aren't managers. Wars can't be "managed". Wars are fought. Usually you fight a war to win.

If we are managing a war we will lose. Leaving is losing. Not enough resources is losing.

I thought everyone disliked Bush because he wasn't a leader and only "managed" his war of terror. The President can't "manage"--he must let his generals lead.

Neither Lincoln nor Roosevelt told their generals--"you need to manage this war better". What they told them was: we need to win.

The administration should not be listening to Mr. Sinhababu.

Posted by: mil1 | September 21, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Need more troops? Send Republicans.

Posted by: hamishdad | September 21, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Hmmmmm- What's a community organizer to do?

Posted by: Bcamp55 | September 21, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Managed war...hmmm? Vietnam was one of those - President Johnson and Secretary McNamara huddled over maps in the oval office, picking not only targets for the Air Force but the routes to and from those targets – and look where that management got us.

It is the job of civilian, elected leadership to commit us to war – and where’s the Congress been my entire life (I’m 64)? – then to provide all of the necessary and even unnecessary assets to prosecute that war. Once we are committed, it is the job of the military to prosecute that war. Operation Desert Storm is certainly an example of the Military doing their job, yet we have to look back to WWII to see an example of civilian leadership doing theirs.

The United States Marine Corps is at war…America is at the mall!

Posted by: sosueme1 | September 21, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

More troops?

Ask the former USSR how effective their military might was in dealing with the Afghans?

For what purpose should we send more troops, more material?

To waste lives, money, and resources in a land known as the graveyard of empires? To prop up a corrupt, ineffectual government? To help a people who consider us 'infidels' and thus have approval from their faith to kill non-Muslims as well as the Muslims who don't agree with them???

Didn't we learn anything in Vietnam? You cannot "win the hearts and minds" of people; you cannot force them and/or bribe them to be your friend if they don't want to be.

As for the Afghans, we trained and armed the "jihadists" who fought the former Soviets....

There is a very important lesson to be learned there, but no one is paying attention.

Let's spend American tax dollars and resources in America and save lives.

Posted by: abbydelabbey | September 21, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

I believe it's safe to say that because of the supermajority that Democrats enjoy in both houses and holding the presidency at the same time coupled with these strategic decisions as to whether or not to send additional troops at the insistance of the top soldier there....Obama et al owns this war and will benefit or suffer by it's outcome.

This is his decision. This is his responsibility

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | September 21, 2009 9:23 PM | Report abuse

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